updated 8/10/2004 10:52:30 AM ET 2004-08-10T14:52:30

Older and disabled Americans strongly support proposals, also backed by the Kerry presidential campaign, to permit prescription drug imports and allow the government to negotiate prices of medicines, said a poll released Tuesday.

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Both ideas would give Americans access to cheaper prescription drugs, most of those polled, all Medicare recipients, said. Four-fifths of those questioned in the Kaiser Family Foundation poll said they support both proposals, dismissing misgivings about the safety of imported drugs.

By contrast, nearly half the people questioned said they have an unfavorable impression of the new prescription drug law passed last year by the Republican-led Congress and signed by President Bush. Among major complaints, the law does not do enough to bring down prices, is too complicated and rewards drug makers and insurers. A quarter of those surveyed said they like the law.

The criticisms are similar to those put forward by Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry and other opponents of last year’s Medicare overhaul. The poll suggests an election-year advantage for the Democrats on the issue.

“So far, it doesn’t look like passage of the drug bill has been a positive for the president and Republicans,” said Drew Altman, Kaiser’s president and chief executive.

'People want a break'
Medicare drug prices do not appear to be a dominant electoral issue for the 41 million older and disabled Americans who are part of the government health care program, Altman said.

However, the issue could play a significant role in several closely fought states, he said. “If 10,000 or 20,000 seniors in Florida and Ohio swing one way or another, that could determine a close race,” Altman said, referring to two states where polls show tight contests.

Drug importation and government negotiation of drug prices typically enjoy considerable support in public opinion polls. The new law forbids both.

The administration says allowing importation of drugs from abroad would be unsafe. It says government negotiation would in reality mean federally imposed price controls on prescription medicines that would remove drug makers’ incentive to develop new products.

Most people don’t care, the poll found. “People want a break on prescription drug costs, and they are for anything that might produce that, and they are less concerned about potential consequences,” Altman said.

Complaints about drug prices have helped build support for both proposals in Congress, including among Republican lawmakers. GOP leaders so far are resisting changes to the Medicare law so close to the election.

Not worth the trouble
They say the new Medicare discount drug cards are helping to cut drug bills by 25 percent for people without drug insurance. The cards will be replaced in 2006 by prescription drug insurance under Medicare, which the administration says will reduce drug costs by more than half for people previously uninsured and much more for low-income seniors.

Yet the survey said that most people find discount cards aren’t worth the trouble because they are confusing and insufficiently generous. More than half said they still don’t understand the law well and lack sufficient information to know how they will be affected.

The telephone survey of 1,223 Medicare recipients was conducted between June 16 and July 21 by Kaiser, a nonpartisan health policy organization, and the Harvard School of Public Health. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 4 percentage points.

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